A Question of Ownership
Updated: May 15, 2022
"We are entirely satisfied that the Grant, as confirmed by the action of Congress, is a valid grant, that the survey and patent issued upon it are entirely free from any fraud."
The United States vs Maxwell Land Grant Company 1887
On June 5, 1967, a group of activists arrived at the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse, the seat of the Rio Arriba County, New Mexico. They were led by the charismatic and revolutionary leader Reies Lopez Tijerina. They were members of the group Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Land Grant Alliance) that Tijerina had founded in 1963 to fight for the restoration of land rights to the Chicano people of northern New Mexico. The goal was to make a citizen's arrest of the district attorney and bring attention to how the US government and Anglo settlers stole property rights from the Hispanics. An armed struggle occurred and Tijerina and his followers fled southward with hostages. A prison guard was killed and a sheriff deputy injured during the confrontation. Tijerina was eventually captured and arrested, and he served less than three years in prison. The "raid" on the courthouse was a violent manifestation of a long history of legal battles in courtrooms and sometimes armed conflict on the open range from Texas to California. It is a history that stretches back to a time when the Southwest was not even a part of the United States.
Tierra Amarilla was once part of a land grant given to Manuel Martinez and a group of settlers in 1832 by the Mexican government. It was one of the thousands of grants given out by first the Spanish crown and then the new government of an independent Mexico. These grants varied in size and in purpose. Early in the Spanish colonial period, royal governors used land grants to establish presidios (military outposts) and missions. Later on, grants were given to well-connected individuals and as rewards for military service. By the end of Spanish rule, land grants were an integral part of the new Spanish policy of encouraging settlements in the northern frontier areas of New Spain - modern-day California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. When it gained independence in 1821, the Mexican government continued the Spanish policy of granting property. These were the foundation of many of the ranchos and haciendas that were established for the raising of cattle or sheep. Grants were either individual holdings or community holdings where the settlers held most of the land in common with small individual plots. Most of the grants, whether individual ranchos or community held, depended on a system of peonage or debt slavery. Settlers worked for the most powerful landowner - the patron - in order to pay off debts with the promise of land ownership. In reality, debts were constantly being accrued forcing people into a pseudo-feudal state of bondage.
The nature and success of the land grants varied from region to region throughout the Mexican period. Southern California was older and more settled. In Texas, the Mexican government opened it up to Anglo settlers from the United States. One of the most notable recipients was Moses Austin. Moses petitioned the Mexican government and received a grant of land in central Texas. Moses died shortly afterward thereby leaving the land to his son Stephen Austin. The large influx of Anglos would eventually result in independence and then statehood for Texas. Stephen Austin played an influential role as one of the leaders of the Texans. It was in the hinterland of Arizona and New Mexico, where it was sparsely settled and still dealing with a hostile Native American population, that some of the long term issues surrounding the land grants would emerge.
In 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico. The war stemmed, in part, from a dispute over where the border between the countries existed. The war ended in 1848 with a United States victory. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed on February 2, 1848. Mexico ceded over half its territory, including all or parts of present-day California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas. A stipulation of the treaty was that the United States government promised to honor existing land claims of those living in the annexed territories. The US victory brought a surge in traffic along the Santa Fe trail and the establishment of a US military presence in the Southwest to help pacify hostile Native American tribes.
The United States annexation of the southwestern territories brought three different cultures and views on land ownership into conflict. Initial settlement in the region remained sparse prior to the Civil War. With the California Gold Rush, the Homestead Act of 1862, and the post-war cattle and railroad boom, the demographics changed as more Anglo-Americans moved into the area. They brought with them the tradition of individual private land ownership. This, of course, conflicted with the Native American view that no one single person had ownership. The land was owned by the community and used freely by everyone. Added to this was the Spanish-Mexican loose system of patronage and personal relationships as represented by the land grants.
Even though the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed that the US government would honor existing property rights, the reality was much more complex. The treaty gave no clear-cut procedures on which to determine claims nor was the United States urged to act promptly at resolving issues. Six years after annexing the territory, Congress created the office of the Surveyor-General. One of the tasks assigned to the new office was the adjudication of property claims in the areas acquired from Mexico. Officials were charged with determining the nature and the extent of claims as they existed under the laws of Spain and Mexico. They would review all the documentation needed to make a decision as to who actually had title to a piece of property.
There was a multitude of problems. First and foremost, the surveyor generals did not speak Spanish. Nor did they understand the Spanish and Mexican legal system. None of them were trained lawyers. Settling land claims was not high on the priority list. The surveyors focused on mapping and extending the public land system. At many hearings, only one side was able to argue their side, and officials failed to allow for due process. Grants were then given to the wrong party. The Tierra Amarilla grant, for example, had been created as a community grant, but the surveyor-general transferred it to an individual. In most cases, on a community grant, only a few individuals would actually be listed. These would be the persons ultimately getting sole rights to the property. Large grants were given excess acreage, or in some cases, whittled down. This was due mainly to the fact many grants were never officially surveyed. Boundaries were marked by natural landmarks and didn't fit neatly into the township and range system of US public lands. The Maxwell grant northeast New Mexico, one of the largest, should have been less than 100,000 acres. Instead, it was given rights to over 1,750,000 acres largely due to never having been properly surveyed. Land speculators and corrupt politicians took advantage of the lack of a legal and procedural framework which would result in many native Hispanos losing their rights to the land they had lived on for generations.
The result was a struggle over ownership and rights to the land within these new territories. The majority of disputes ended up in court, with some going all the way up to the Supreme Court for decisions. Other times the disputes resulted in a period of violence on both sides. The Maxwell grant, for instance, infamously saw violence during the 1870s and 1880s dubbed "The Colfax County War". In 1891 Congress created the Court of Private Land Claims in order to consolidate into one court the land claim cases and help resolve the large number of cases still pending. The court was appointed initially until 1895 but was extended until 1904. Despite efforts by the US government, the question of land ownership and usage on the old Spanish and Mexican land grants continues in the modern era. In 2014, for example, in South Texas, a group of Spanish land grant heirs sued to collect on what they believed was their claim to mineral rights in the region. A commission was set up in 2018 to investigate wrongful claims which were a result of an incomplete application of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. As recent as December 2020, the House of Representatives passed HR 3682: The Land Grant-Mercedes Traditional Use Recognition and Consultation Act. ("This bill requires the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of the Interior to issue guidance related to certain community land grants in New Mexico made by Spain or Mexico to individuals, groups, and communities to promote the settlement of the southwestern United States (land grant-mercedes).")
The raid on the Tierra Amarilla courthouse was just one manifestation of a nearly 170-year-old conflict to reconcile two different traditions of property ownership. The past informs the present.
Maria E. Montoya uses the Maxwell Land Grant as the foundation of her excellent analysis of the complex legal, social, and cultural history of the land grant conflict in the Southwest.
Transferring Property: The Maxwell Land Grant and the Conflict over Land in the American West 1840 - 1900.